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Urban Gardener: Vacation Harvests

Saturday, August 09, 2014


A sunflower.

Many urban gardeners escape to the seashore or mountains and leave their thriving plots. It’s a fond farewell, the tomatoes and grapes are ripening, the sunflowers attract flocks of gold finches, and the grape arbor re-defines peace and tranquility. No worries friends. Gardeners only guide the natural. For peace of mind, and the stunning rewards of return, here are a few tips to keep the garden safe and sound while you’re splashing in the surf.

Breath deep, be bold and venture among the garden plants. Now is the time to pull out the lamb’s quarters, amaranth, clover, crabgrass and purslane that often disguise themselves among the green foliage of cultivated plants. They are vigorous plants that indicate fertile soil. Remove them to prevent any seed formation and reduce the competition for precious water and nutrients. I either snip them into smaller pieces right on the spot with my ever handy clippers, or tuck the plants into the fast disappearing hay mulch.


Beef up your mulch with any organic materials that are easy to come by, cheap, or abundant. Form friendships with local landscapers who often have grass clippings to dispose. I trade tomatoes and other produce in a casual way for the nearly daily brown paper bag full of bright green grass clippings. Often, the lawn clippings begin to compost in the paper bag. Steam rises from the hot clippings before I can renew past mulches. A continuous policy of adding organic materials to the garden plot is a win-win alliance of need and disposal. Any bio-degradable material diverted from the city’s relentless funnel of compostable materials into landfills is a gesture towards one of the urban garden’s primary benefits. 

Our urban gardens tap into only a small portion of the wasteful detritus around us. Unlike our country friends, bags of lawn clippings, leaves, and wood chips are often on our sidewalks, free for the taking. Indeed, some home owners are puzzled when I appear and lug home these materials for the garden. Diligent urban gardeners cover soil with mulch. Forget drought and watering while you’re away, the mulch will keep your soil moist.

Tomatoes, Not Just for Sauce

I keep a large roll of jute twine to tie up tomatoes and loose clumps of New England asters or roses. Look around before departing, an astounding amount of growth will greet your return. While unpacking or, if like me, before unpacking, head out to the garden with a fresh washed straw basket. Bring your appetite.

Tomatoes on the vine.

Tomatoes are the glory of the August garden. They flourish in sunshine and thrive in rich well drained soils. Space constraints encourage staking or trellises to support these semi-tropical vines native to Central America. The tomato family is very large.

Why grow single types of tomatoes when a world of choices are at your fingertips? Heirloom tomatoes enjoy current vogue for good reasons. Not only may they anchor ancestral memories, saved from year to year by thrifty gardeners, but heirlooms offer a delightful array of shapes, colors, taste and purpose. Each year I cultivate Napoli and Roma tomatoes for canning and cooking. They have thick fleshy fruits with few seeds or juice. Heirlooms not only reflect our complex cultural diversity. They suggest much history. Napoli and Roma are direct descendants of tomatoes brought to Italy during the 16th century. The Italians wrought miracles with Columbus’s botanical treasures from the New World. Along with the Spanish who ruled Naples and were sometimes Popes, tomatoes entered European cuisine. They remained a rarity to northern Europeans, especially the English who colonized the eastern seaboard. The first tomato publicly eaten in Newport, R.I. was in 1830, until then they considered “Love Apples” and too stimulating for our upright ancestors. Marinara sauces, or “gravy,” arrived with the first Italian immigrants in the late 19th century. They brought basil along too and we’re lucky they did.

Heirloom tomatoes left the fresh market place when long distance cheap shipping nationalized the fresh produce market for urban centers. Many heirlooms do not travel well, nor do they conform to stereotypical conceptions of what a tomato is supposed to look like. Their odd shapes, range of colors, and delicate fruits belie a hidden value, taste.

Grow cherry tomatoes for their sweetness and easy eating. I pop them right into my mouth straight from the vine. Isn’t this a primary motivation to grow your own? I always plant cherry tomatoes close to the garden’s edge for easy picking. They are often the first to ripen. Do your best to eat them, they quickly ripen and burst apart their skin.

Classics like beefsteak are perfect for slicing and preparing the ultimate summer sandwich, the BLT. Do you have a sensitive stomach? Grow Golden Boy and his cousins not only for their lovely yellow color but low acidity. Very mild flavored, they offer options to those of us who consider our food not only as nutritious but also medicinal.

Many vegetables and herbs – such as parsley and basil – are often grown in conjunction with tomatoes and requesting the same horticulture, have medicinal as well as flavorful applications. None of our urban friends can enjoy the robust flavor of freshly picked parsley like those with urban garden plots.

Sunflowers, an Avians' Bounty

A sunflower blooming.

While you’re vacationing it’s important to recall our friends, the birds. Habitat is lost daily to urban growth. The sunflowers tucked into corners are towering and will greet your homecoming with blooms packed full of seeds.

Ever cheerful and visually stunning, sunflowers have brought flocks of golden finches to my urban plot. Peace takes on a new meaning, as one pauses among the tomatoes to listen to the finches chirp to one another. The birds blend right into the sunflowers. They perch on the blooms and methodically harvest the seeds from the outer rim towards the center.

My favorite viewpoint is from under the grape arbor. Seedless green, red and Concord grapes clamber over the tall arbor. Grapes are perfect for those with tight spaces. Many urban homes have grape arbors over driveways utilizing sunshine otherwise baking paved surfaces. The bird watching from under the grape arbor is subtly enriched by the sweet aroma of grapes. Grapes need little care. They are sweet and far removed from chemical treatments applied to produce shipped thousands of miles to our markets. Peace and harmony prevail under the grape arbor.

Enjoy summer times away from the garden. Be confident that your garden remains steadfast and productive. Home again? Run out to the garden and pick some tomatoes. BLT’s are a welcome home made sandwich fine for all. I like to eat them at the picnic table where manners are a bit more casual. Relax, it’s summer time and living is easy.

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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